Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Calculated response has paid dividends

Luke Romano has made a huge impact. Photo / Getty Images
Luke Romano has made a huge impact. Photo / Getty Images

The opening test of the World Cup marks the beginning of the All Blacks' current unbeaten run, but the origins of excellence can be traced back to Hamilton, 2009.

Adversity was the making of this All Black team. Their third consecutive defeat to the Springboks in September 2009 brought them to the edge of realisation; they either had to make significant changes or get used to losing.

By the end of the Tri Nations that year, the All Blacks had lost four of their nine tests. Of equal concern was their inability to deal with high kicks, win lineout ball or dominate scrums.

They had wings who were one-dimensional, power runners but not ball players and the country was light on grafting, breakdown-hitting locks. The coaches made a number of significant changes ahead of the end of year tour; they simplified the lineout by speeding things up and moving less on the ground.

They began looking for locks who wanted to be locks and not loose forwards and they selected wings who were just as comfortable at fullback.

They tweaked their defensive pattern and placed heavy emphasis on tacklers scrambling to their feet. They also spent that bit longer working the basic skills at training and, as a consequence, the All Blacks have enjoyed an incredible three-year period.

In Hong Kong two years ago, the All Blacks were on the verge of the consecutive victory record they now look ready to claim. They won 15 in a row after defeat in Hamilton 2009, playing counter-attacking, explosive, highly skilled football that was built on their ability to recycle at blinding speed.

They won the World Cup on the back of their defensive prowess and ability to defuse high balls - something they didn't look remotely capable of in early 2009. This year they have been able to handle the loss of Brad Thorn, the world's premier tight lock in 2011, because Brodie Retallick and Luke Romano are skilled in the arts of collisions, clean-outs and lineouts.

All the things they set out to improve back in 2009 have been integral to them winning a staggering 38 of their last 41 tests. To be in sight of the consecutive run once is achievement enough - but to be on the cusp for the second time in less than two years is incredible.

Weaknesses so easily and readily exposed in 2009 have now been fixed and if this current side has areas of frailty, no one has managed to find them yet.

Springbok captain Jean de Villiers said last week: "It scares the living daylights out of me, thinking of how far they can go. It's possible that if they beat us on Sunday they may go on to win all of their games on the end-of-year-tour and eventually set the record at 23 tests or something like that."

More incredible is the thought that they could achieve a win record of 90 per cent-plus in the 50 tests since losing in Hamilton, 2009. That peek into the abyss - that was the making of this side.

- Herald on Sunday

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